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Mueller Probe Could Draw Focus to Russian Crime Operations

  • Associated Press

FILE - Former FBI Director Robert Mueller, the special counsel probing Russian interference in the 2016 election, departs Capitol Hill following a closed door meeting in Washington, June 21, 2017. A 2001 Justice Department memo warned that no nation, including the United States, was immune from the threat posed by Russian organized crime.

The U.S. government has long warned that Russian organized crime posed a threat to democratic institutions, including "criminally linked oligarchs" who might collude with the Russian government to undermine business competition.

Those concerns, ever present if not necessarily always top priorities, are front and center once more.

A special counsel investigation is drawing attention to Russian efforts to meddle in democratic processes, the type of skulduggery that in the past has relied on hired hackers and outside criminals. It's not clear how much the probe by former FBI Director Robert Mueller will center on the criminal underbelly of Moscow, but he's already picked some lawyers with experience fighting organized crime. And as the team looks for any financial entanglements of Trump associates and relationships with Russian officials, its focus could land again on the intertwining of Russia's criminal operatives and its intelligence services.

Russian organized crime has manifested itself over the decades in more conventional forms of money laundering, credit card fraud and black market sales. Justice Department prosecutors have repeatedly racked up convictions for those offenses.

Espionage plus greed

In recent years, though, the bond between Russian intelligence agencies and criminal networks has been especially alarming to American law enforcement officials, blending motives of espionage with more old-fashioned greed. In March, for instance, two hired hackers were charged along with two officers of Russia's Federal Security Service in a cyberattack on Yahoo Inc. in 2013.

FILE - A part of the declassified version Intelligence Community Assessment on Russia's efforts to interfere with the U.S. political process is photographed in Washington, Jan. 6, 2017.
FILE - A part of the declassified version Intelligence Community Assessment on Russia's efforts to interfere with the U.S. political process is photographed in Washington, Jan. 6, 2017.

It's too early to know how Russian criminal networks might fit into the election meddling investigation, but central to the probe are devastating breaches of Democratic email accounts, including those of the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton's campaign chairman. U.S. authorities have blamed those hacks on Russian intelligence services working to discredit Clinton and help Trump — but have said the overall effort involved third-party intermediaries and paid internet trolls.

Former law enforcement officials say Russian organized crime has been a concern for at least a couple of decades, though not necessarily the most pressing demand given finite resources and budget constraints. The threat is diffuse and complex, and Russia's historic lack of cooperation has complicated efforts to apprehend suspects. And the responsibility for combating the problem often falls across different divisions of the FBI and the Justice Department, depending on whether it's a criminal or national security offense — a sometimes blurry boundary.

'Very dangerous'

"It's not an easy thing to kind of grasp or understand, but it's very dangerous to our country because they have so many different aspects, unlike a traditional cartel," said Robert Anderson, a retired FBI executive assistant director who worked counterintelligence cases and oversaw the criminal and cyber branch.

"You have to know where to look, which makes it more complicated," he added. "And you have to understand what you're looking for."

Federal prosecutors continue to bring traditional organized crime cases, such as one last month in New York charging 33 members and associates of a Russian crime syndicate in a racketeering and extortion scheme that officials say involved cargo shipment thefts and efforts to defraud casinos. But there's a heightened awareness about more sophisticated cyberthreats that commingle the interests of the government and of criminals.

"An organized criminal group matures in what they do," said retired FBI Assistant Director Ron Hosko. "What they once did here through extortion, some of these groups are now doing through cyberattack vectors."

Within the Justice Department, it's been apparent since the collapse of the Soviet Union that crime from that territory could affect national security in Europe and the U.S.

A 2001 report from the Justice Department's National Institute of Justice, a research arm, called America "the land of opportunity for unloading criminal goods and laundering dirty money." It said crime groups in the region were establishing ties to drug trafficking networks, and that "criminally linked oligarchs" might work with the government to undermine competition in gas, oil and other strategic networks.

Three months later came the September 11 attacks, and the FBI, then under Mueller's leadership, and other agencies left no doubt that terrorism was the most important priority.

"I recall talking to the racketeering guys after that and them saying, 'Forget any focus now on organized crime,' " said James Finckenauer, an author of the report.

FILE - Paul Manafort talks to reporters on the floor of the Republican National Convention at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, July 17, 2016.
FILE - Paul Manafort talks to reporters on the floor of the Republican National Convention at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, July 17, 2016.

Besides cyberthreats, Justice Department officials in recent years have worried about the effect of unchecked international corruption, creating a kleptocracy initiative to recover money plundered by government leaders for their own purposes.

Yanukovych regime

In 2014, then-Attorney General Eric Holder pledged the Justice Department's commitment to recouping large sums believed to have been stolen during the regime of the Russia-backed government of Viktor Yanukovych, the Ukrainian president chased from power that year.

That effort led to an FBI focus on Paul Manafort, the Trump campaign chairman who did political consulting work on behalf of Yanukovych's political party and who remains under scrutiny now.

But those same foreign links have also made cases hard to prove in court.

In many instances, foreign criminal hackers or those sponsored by foreign governments — including China, Iran and Russia — have remained out of reach of American authorities. In some cases, judges have chastised U.S. authorities for prosecutorial overreach in going after international targets.

A San Francisco federal judge, for instance, in 2015 dismissed an indictment involving two Ukrainian nationals who'd been accused of trying to bribe an official at a U.N. agency responsible for creating standards for machine-readable international passports.

The judge said he couldn't understand how the government could apply a foreign bribery law to conduct that had no direct connection to the U.S.

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